He came into my apartment. He came into the place where I lived and slept and ate and took showers and paid bills and paid rent. He came in when I was not there. Repeatedly. Maybe every day.
He did not sit down. He did not eat or drink. He did not take things, usually. He turned on a light. Or left the top lock unlocked. Things I was almost completely certain I did not do, but the slightest chance existed that I had. One day, I came home early from work and thought I heard someone leave my third floor apartment through a door in my bedroom, at the back of the apartment, that led out to a balcony, about four feet high of solid wood. I thought I heard running, then a jump and hard landing. I pretended I didn’t hear.
I pretended for a long time. I pretended until he was ready for me not to pretend anymore.
It was December of 2011. I had taken a few days off from work. I had been sick for most of the fall and winter, with bronchitis and laryngitis. My voice came and went. I was worn down.
It was a beautiful, clear day. My apartment got a lot of sun. I went down to the ground floor to collect my laundry. I was gone for ten minutes, at most. When I went back into my apartment, every light was on. There were two doors across a very small divide – the bedroom and the bathroom. I never closed those doors if I was not in those rooms. They were both closed.
I turned off the lights and went to my dentist appointment. I left my dentist appointment and went to the grocery store.
Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonnance: What we believe to be true can shift when thoughts and behaviors or even hard facts are in conflict. It is a response to anxiety. I did not think this could happen to me.
I carried six bags of groceries up four flights of stairs. I saw my next-door neighbor, an older, retired man, and the neighbor on his other side, a woman in her 30’s or so, having an animated conversation outside of her apartment. I had never met her. I had lived there a year and a half.
I set down my groceries and went over. She had come home, found her door ajar and walked in to lights blazing, doors to bathroom and bedroom closed. She lived alone, too. The landlady had someone come out and change our locks that night. Three days later, he came back.
I had gotten out of bed at around 9:00am and was at my desk, also at the back of the apartment. Windows went almost all the way across the back wall, with an accordion-style door between the bedroom and living room, which I kept open.
I opened the curtains and sat at my computer to write. I heard a thump. I turned and saw a man ramming his shoulder into the wood door between the balcony and my bedroom. I heard it again. I screamed. I grabbed my phone and ran out the front door. Later, I was told I screamed, “Get out of here.”
The police came quickly. He was gone. The door opened to the outside. Had it been inward-opening, he would have been in with one or two hits. I would not have had time to run.
I did not see his face. I do not know who he was. Who he is. There is someone I suspect, but I don’t know. He’s not someone I know.
The police said that, sure, the guy could have gotten up the drainpipe up to my balcony. They were not surprised, but they couldn’t do anything. The guy had barely made a scratch in the door.
I filed a police report. I noted a few things that were missing. Things of little value. A silver ring engraved with a deer’s head, a pair of fleece socks, a little pair of scissors for trimming my cat’s claws. He put the scissors and the socks back later. In places they hadn’t been.
People joked that it was a ghost. They do, still. Ghosts do not try to break into your apartment when they see you are there.
I didn’t leave.
The other tenants and I got together and talked to the elderly landlady and her son. We learned the doors were 54-year-old hollow-core wood. The locks hadn’t been changed since the 1970s.
Contractors worked on the building for the next two weeks. Replacing front and back doors, adding peepholes, painting. We got extra deadbolts you can only lock from the inside.
For a few months, I was scared to leave my apartment. I was more scared to go into my apartment. I didn’t sleep well.
I became more comfortable at home. I locked the lock and deadbolt from the outside when I left and locked the lock, deadbolt and extra deadbolt when I was inside.
In April, I began to sense that he had been inside again. A few little things had gone missing and I could not find them. Things that I always kept in the same place. I called the neighborhood beat cop. He talked to me for an hour and told me he would come by and see if he could make any suggestions. He was kind, but I don’t know if he believed me. He never came by.
I didn’t leave.
I did not want to move. I could not afford higher rent. It was a great apartment in a desirable area. I believed I could make myself safe.
I bought a motion sensor alarm system. I felt better. It had numerous malfunctions and false alarms. And he got in under it.
One night in June, I went downstairs to the laundry room. I set the alarm. I always set the alarm. When I got back upstairs, he had arranged a pair of my shoes so that they were perfectly aligned on the metal strip that separated kitchen from living room. Dead center, like I had stepped right out of them. I was wearing the same shoes I had worn all day.
I’m the girl in the horror movie. The one you see opening the door with the killer behind it. You’re screaming GET OUT. Run.
I was not sleeping well. I was extremely anxious and withdrawn. I was eating a lot and gaining weight. Everyone told me to leave. I was too tired to move. I tried everything. Something had to work.
After the shoe incident, I started to look for a new apartment, but couldn’t find anything. I broke out in hives all over my body. I watched them erupt, moving down my arms to my wrists. My doctor told me to take Benadryl every day.
When he took the extra-large bottle of Benadryl from the bathroom counter, I left.
I found a new place. I have lived here for four months. I bought the best lock on the market. I know my neighbors. I sleep.
A friend went to my old apartment with big green trash bags and put all of my things in them. I could not be there alone. I am still finding things.
Sometimes I turn around and think someone will be there. I hear him say things like “You didn’t think it was over, did you?” I hear him say nothing and feel the same terror.
I used to have this recurring dream. In the dream, I wake up and someone is on top of me. I try to scream and I can’t. I wake up. Someone is on top of me. I try to scream and I can’t. I wake up.
I learned I can scream. I don’t have the nightmare.
I stay up all night sometimes. I touch my lock before I go to sleep.
I don’t know who he is. He is with me almost always.
Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.